AUGUSTA — Stefanie Veneziano is a senior at the University of Maine who waits tables part time at the 99 Restaurant in Bangor. She says the tips she earns help her pay for college and living expenses.
So Veneziano had a lot of questions for Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock, when she noticed he was sponsoring a bill that would remove language from state law prohibiting restaurants from claiming ownership of tips and allowing establishments to determine when wait staff should pool gratuities.
"I was pretty worried when I saw it on the legislative calendar," said Veneziano, who is interning for the Maine Senate Democrats. "I didn't know what to think of it."
Neither do Democrats and labor advocates, who are alarmed that Langley's proposal will strip protections added to Maine's minimum wage law in 2007.
Langley, who owns the Union River Lobster Pot in Ellsworth, said his bill is meant to align Maine law with federal law and to allow restaurant owners like himself to determine when wait staff can pool their tips and distribute them evenly at the end of a shift.
"It's less onerous than it appears," Langley said.
Maine law allows wait staff to decide collectively whether they want to pool tips. Changing that provision isn't the main concern for Laura Harper of the Maine Women's Lobby. More worrying, she said, is that Langley's proposal would roll back wait staff protections that were enacted in 2007 and supported by the Maine Department of Labor.
According to committee testimony documents, William Peabody, former director of the department's Labor Standards Bureau, testified that his department had occasionally been forced to sue restaurant owners for withholding tips.
Peabody said the 2007 amendment would help the department enforce federal regulations that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, prohibit restaurant owners from claiming ownership of gratuities. According to a federal fact sheet, "a tip is the sole property of the tipped employee."
Langley's bill would remove the clarifying language from Maine law.
"The Department of Labor said we needed to clarify this," Harper said. "To strike all of this language is deeply concerning and we oppose it."
Langley said his bill has nothing to do with giving restaurant owners property rights over tips, or taking a share from wait staff. He said he wanted to simplify Maine law to eliminate the need for lawsuits. He also wanted to allow restaurant owners to pool tips for wait staff, which he said was more equitable and sometimes allowed business owners to hire a smaller wait staff.
But one co-sponsor, Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, said he didn't know Langley's proposal would remove the language from the 2007 amendment.
"Some of this language in that bill I'm not happy with and did not know was in it," Morrison said. "If that language stays in the bill, I will oppose it."
He added, "I do not believe that tips belong to an employer until distributed. I do believe in equity for servers, but I don't believe tips are the property of the business first."
The bill has upset several Democrats who said it could hurt a large segment of Maine's work force and discourage quality service.
Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, a member of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee that will be reviewing the bill, questioned why removing the language was necessary.
"I was a waitress and I put myself through college waiting tables," Herbig said. "I can't imagine any person in that same position being OK with this. It's basic understanding that if someone is leaving a tip on their table ... it's for the person that is serving them."
Rep. Mike Carey, R-Lewiston, said the current language encourages good service. He said Langley's decision to remove the language must be an error.
"I can't believe that the intent is to take that tip away and give it to whomever else," Carey said.
Langley said he wanted to fix contradictions between Maine law and the federal law. He said those issues had a big impact on chain restaurants that are operating under two sets of guidelines.
Langley said the Maine Restaurant Association supported the change. Richard Grotton, a lobbyist for the group, did not return messages seeking comment.
Disclosure documents show the MRA lobbied lawmakers on the 2007 amendment to the tip law. However, the group submitted no written testimony outlining its position.
The issue of restaurant owners withholding wait staff tips has popped up nationally, and there are several instances in which wait staff workers have sued their employers for withholding tips or redistributing them to other staff, such as busboys and dishwashers.
Despite the language in Maine's law, several workers at the Front Room restaurant in Portland last year sued the establishment after the owner forced three servers to surrender 15 percent of their tip earnings so they could be shared with non-wait staff.